Gosh... This post sure is overdue. It has been almost a year since my visit to the Taj Mahal and my epic trip to India / Thailand, and I can't believe I haven't taken the time to post about the experience earlier! The Taj Mahal is a tough place to visit. Getting to India is often difficult enough for Americans, but then once you're in India, Agra is not exactly convenient to most major cities. The closest city is Delhi, and it's about a two hour train ride from Delhi. On many recommendations from others, we used Culture Holidays to book our day trip from Delhi to Agra. After writing this post, I realize that there may be some social commentary to reflect how i was feeling at various times throughout the trip. Apologies in advance if this doesn't resonate well with anyone. Read on to hear about the experience.
For those of you who book the same day trip, I must warn you... This was a LONG day. All the pictures are clickable for larger versions.
You might notice on the Culture Holidays website that it mentions a 5:15AM pickup from the hotel. This assumes that you are in downtown New Delhi. We were staying at the Leela Kempinski, a fantastic property, in Gurgaon. The operator informed us that there would be a small surcharge in addition to the normal fee, as we were so far away. Additionally, they would be picking us up at 4:45AM to allow extra transit time. 4:45AM!??!?!
At 4:45AM, we received a call to the room that our car had come to pick us up. There were two people in the car: a driver and a guide who we thought would be our tour guide for the whole day. He actually was not our guide. His job was to get us our train tickets and see that we made it safely on the train. This might seem silly, but the Delhi train station is not exactly the type of place where Westerners would feel safe on their own, at least speaking for myself. It's a huge sprawl of people, and it's not out of the ordinary to see people bathing with the hoses on the train tracks, physically deformed beggars asking for money, and a variety of other things that we're not used to seeing on a day to day basis.
New Delhi Train Station
Seeing this sort of thing really is eye opening, however, and I'm so glad that we decided to go this route, rather than just pay a BMW to drive us down there for the day. The young guide was fantastic, and he waited with us until the train came, and while we were waiting, he filled us in on his life story, how he was hoping to eventually be able to be a full-time tour guide in Agra, and various other tidbits about life in Delhi.
Finally, our train came, and he walked us on the train, helping us find our seats. This was the "express" train where everyone had assigned seats. One might consider this the equivalent of the Acela from Delhi to Agra. On the flipside, we were able to see the "other" train to Agra on the other track, and it really looked like a cattle car of packed people. We took our seats, and the guide wished us well. He told us that we should look for our guide when we got off the train in Agra. Breakfast was served on the train. It was a hot breakfast with juice, and I found it pretty enjoyable. The train ride itself was fascinating. There was just such a dichotomy of vistas out the window. One moment we would be soaking in the view, and another moment we would see people defecating on the side of the tracks, surrounded by tin roof huts and poverty. The trip really enforced how fortunate we are in the states. While there are of course exceptions, people in the US aspire to have nicer things. I.E. "Someday I'll move out of this crappy house and get a bigger one!" or "Someday I'll be able to afford a new car!" Much of the Indian population do not get to have those thoughts and aspirations as they are born into a life of extreme poverty, and the chances for getting out of it are quite low.
Like I said, the train ride was fascinating. Eventually we got to Agra, and it was a mad rush to get off the train. Men and women were pushing and squeezing to get off. It was a bit uncomfortable, but right as we popped off the train, a man greeted me and said, "Mr. Hanson, Welcome to Agra!" My first though: "How the heck does this guy know who I am?" Second thought: "Oh. I'm the only white man here." Hahaha. He introduced himself, and mentioned that he would take us to a hotel where we could clean up, use the facilities, etc. We arrived at the hotel, and while it wasn't a dump, it also wasn't that nice. We were a bit concerned because the tour promised a buffet lunch at a "five star hotel." Was this to be our five star hotel? After cleaning up, he informed us that he was also not our guide! He introduced us to our actual guide, though, and we got in the car, and we were on our way to the Taj.
In the car, which was well air conditioned (and thank goodness, as it was nearly 120 degrees that day!), our guide began to explain to us a bit about the history of Agra. We pulled up to a shuttle stop, and we hopped in the shuttle to head up to the Taj Mahal. Our guide prompted us to tip the driver. We got near the entrance of the Taj, and I'm really glad we had a guide. There were people selling water bottles there, and he told us not to buy any here, as these may have been old bottles re-filled and re-sold. GROSS! We walked past more vendors and cows, and we finally got to the security checkpoint to go in. A French coworker told me earlier that week, in his somewhat broken English, "The thing about the Taj... Is... You don't see the Taj until you SEE THE TAJ!" I now know what he meant. Even when you enter inside the high walls of the Taj Mahal complex, you can't see the actual structure itself. The red stone walls are too high. Then you turn a corner, walk through a tunnel, and BOOM. There it is. Absolutely stunning.
Now I have to be honest. I'm not really an "architecture guy." I spent four months in Spain, and while I thought all of the Gothic cathedrals were beautiful, none had my jaw dropping to the floor. But when I saw the Taj, I was like, "Woah..." It was magnificent.
The guide walked us around the various parts of the Taj, offered to take as many pictures of us as we requested, and eloquently told us the story of Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal. The story is marvelous, and one thing I didn't know before the trip was that just across the river, Shah Jahan had started to erect an exact duplicate of the Taj Mahal, but in black marble instead of white. He didn't get very far, though, as one of his sons jailed him in the Agra Fort, in order to take power. The story, as I heard it, has his son keeping him cooped up in a special cell in Agra Fort, and from that cell, Shah Jahan would have a beautiful view of his Taj Mahal and the beginnings of his second, black Taj Mahal that he was never able to finish. Below is the view from Shah Jahan's jail cell at Agra Fort.
View of the Taj Mahal from Shah Jahan's cell at Agra Fort
After our trip to the Taj, our guide took us to Agra Fort. We were able to see how the royalty of the Mughal empire lived, and while this place is now only a shadow of what it once was, it's not hard to imagine the fort in pristine condition, surrounded by a moat, bustling with activity. The Agra Fort was definitely fascinating to tour, and considering that it had been a few hours in 120 degree heat since we left the hotel for the bathroom break, we were exhausted and starving. Fortunately, it was lunch time. Even more fortunately, it turns out that the hotel we would be eating lunch at was not the same hotel they took us to in the morning. Woot! They actually took us to the ITC Mughal, part of the Starwood Luxury Collection. Nice! Lunch was awesome, and by that time I had been in India for a couple weeks, and I had grown quite fond of the hotel lunch buffets. We had a mix of fresh naan, dahl, fruit, and a variety of other great Indian dishes.
The ruins of Fatehpur Sikri
After lunch, we cleaned up, relaxed for a bit, and then left again with our tour guide in the air conditioned car for Fatehpur Sikri, a well preserved ghost town from the Mughal empire. This was a pretty cool site to see, but to be honest, it was ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY FREAKING DEGREES, and we had already seen the most magnificent site first. So while we were glad to be there, we were pretty close to spent. the guide showed us around and gave us the history. On the way back, we stopped by a jewelry store, and we could buy jewelry if we chose. We chose not to, and if we had one bit of feedback for this trip, it would be that the vendors they took us to were too pushy. I know that this is common in foreign countries, but part of the point of these tours is that we pay them to shelter us a bit! I'm not sure what we did, but let's just say the jewelry guy was basically yelling at us when we told him we didn't want any of his freaking beautiful crap!
If You Seek a Plethora of Roaming Goats and Cows, Then India is Your Place...
It was actually a pretty long drive to Fatehpur Sikri, and the drive back was just as long. The tour guide dropped us off at a restaurant where we could get some food. We were more thirsty than hungry, and this restaurant didn't quite appeal to us like the hotel food so we just had some naan and beverages. While we were waiting, eventually our guide/driver who picked us up at the train station showed up again. He was extremely friendly, asked us how our day was, and was ready to take us back to the train station.
After arriving at the train station, he waited with us until the train came. Once again, given the type of activity that we saw at the train station, it was comforting to have a local with us. We boarded the train, took our seats, kicked back, and relaxed. We were exhausted. There wasn't much to see out the window this time as it was completely dark. When we got off the train, the original person who picked us up at the hotel was there to meet us. He took us to the car, and we got back to the Leela just after midnight.
It was a ridiculously long day that unfortunately coincided with nearly a record heat day. Even so, it was the single best day of sightseeing I have ever done in my life. I want to do it again so badly, but as I mentioned back in paragraph one, it's not exactly a hop, skip, or jump to get from San Francisco to Agra. I hope to go back at some point in my lifetime, but if I don't make it over there again, I'll forever be thankful for that one day.